Also, be sure to click on the animation link below.
December 21, 2007: Astronomers funded by NASA are monitoring the trajectory of an asteroid named 2007 WD5 that is expected to cross the orbital path of Mars early next year. Calculations by NASA's Near-Earth Object Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory indicate that the 164-ft wide asteroid may pass within 30,000 miles of Mars at about 6 a.m. EST on Jan. 30, 2008.
"Right now asteroid 2007 WD5 is about half-way between the Earth and Mars and closing the distance [to Mars] at a speed of about 27,900 miles per hour," said Don Yeomans, manager of the Near Earth Object Office at JPL.
Above: This artist rendering uses an arrow to show the predicted path of the asteroid on Jan. 30, 2008. The orange swath indicates the area it is expected to pass through. Mars may or may not be in the asteroid's path. Image credit: NASA/JPL. [Animation]
There is a 1-in-75 chance of 2007 WD5 hitting Mars; researchers can't be more confident than that because of uncertainties in the asteroid's orbit. If this unlikely event were to occur, however, the strike would happen somewhere within a broad swath across the planet north of where the Opportunity rover is.
"We estimate such impacts occur on Mars every thousand years or so," said Steve Chesley, a scientist at JPL. "If 2007 WD5 were to thump Mars on Jan. 30, we calculate it would hit at about 30,000 miles per hour and might create a crater more than half-a-mile wide." The Mars Rover Opportunity is currently exploring a crater approximately this size.
Such a collision could release about three megatons of energy. Scientists believe an event of comparable magnitude occurred here on Earth in 1908 in Tunguska, Siberia, but no crater was created. The object was disintegrated by Earth's atmosphere before it hit the ground, although the air blast devastated a large area of unpopulated forest. The Martian atmosphere is much thinner than Earth's so a similar sized impactor would be more likely to reach the ground.
Asteroid 2007 WD5 was first discovered on Nov. 20, 2007, by the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey and put on a "watch list" because its orbit passes near the Earth. Further observations from both the NASA-funded Spacewatch at Kitt Peak, Ariz., and the Magdalena Ridge Observatory in New Mexico gave scientists enough data to determine that the asteroid was not a danger to Earth, but could potentially impact Mars.
Because the asteroid has been tracked for little more than a month, there is still some uncertainly about the path it will take. "Over the next five weeks, we hope to gather more information from observatories so we can further refine the asteroid's trajectory," says Yeomans. More data could eliminate or confirm the possibility of an impact.
Update: This news actually came out back on January 9th, but I only noticed the information now (January 28th). The potential collision of Asteroid 2007 WD5 with Mars has been "effectively ruled out" by NASA's Near Earth Object Program:
Since our last update, we have received numerous tracking measurements of asteroid 2007 WD5 from four different observatories. These new data have led to a significant reduction in the position uncertainties during the asteroid's close approach to Mars on Jan. 30, 2008. As a result, the impact probability has dropped dramatically, to approximately 0.01% or 1 in 10,000 odds, effectively ruling out the possible collision with Mars.
Our best estimate now is that 2007 WD5 will pass about 26,000 km from the planet's center (about 7 Mars radii from the surface) at around 12:00 UTC (4:00 am PST) on Jan. 30th. With 99.7% confidence, the pass should be no closer than 4000 km from the surface.